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The Town Traveller By George Gissing Characters: 18120

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Christopher Parish lived at home, that is to say, he was not a lodger under an alien roof, like the majority of such young men in London, but abode with his own people-his mother, his elder brother, and his brother's wife. They had a decent little house in Kennington, managed-rather better than such houses generally are-by Mrs. Parish the younger, who was childless, and thus able to devote herself to what she called "hyjene," a word constantly on her lips and on those of her husband. Mr. Theodore Parish, aged about five-and-thirty, was an audit clerk in the offices of a railway company, and he loved to expatiate on the hardship of his position, which lay in the fact that he could not hope for a higher income than one hundred and fifty pounds, and this despite the trying and responsible nature of the duties he discharged. After dwelling upon this injustice he would add, with peculiar gravity, that really in certain moods one all but inclined to give a hearing to the arguments of socialistic agitators. In other moods, and these more frequent, Mr. Parish indulged in native optimism, tempered by anxiety in matters of "hyjene." He was much preoccupied with the laundry question.

"Now, are you quite sure, Ada, that this laundress is a conscientious woman? Does she manage her establishment on modern principles? I beg you will make a personal inspection. If ever a laundress refuses to let you make a personal inspection be sure there is something wrong. Just think how vital it is, this washing question. We send our clothes, our personal garments, to a strange house to be mixed with-"

And so on at great length, Mrs. Theodore listening patiently and approvingly. With equal solicitude did they discuss the food upon their table.

"Theo, I shall have to change our baker."

"Ah, indeed! Why?"

"I hardly like to tell you, but perhaps I had better. I have only just found out that a sewer-trap quite close to his shop gives out a most offensive affluvia, especially in this hot weather. The air must be full of germs. I hardly know whet her we ought to eat even this loaf. What do you think?"

Every one's dinner was spoilt. Theodore declared that really, when one considered the complicated and expensive machinery of local government, if sewer traps and affluvias were allowed to exist in the immediate neighbourhood of bakers' shops, why it really made one inclined to think and ask whether there might not be something in the arguments of the Socialists.

Christopher one day brought home some knickknack which he had bought from a City pedlar, one of those men who stand at the edge of the pavement between a vigilant police and a menacing vehicular traffic. It amused his sister-in-law, who showed it to her husband. Theodore having learnt whence it came was not a little concerned.

"Now, if that isn't like Christopher! When will that boy learn ordinary prudence? The idea of buying things from a man whose clothes more likely than not reek with infection! Dear me! Has he never reflected where those fellows live? Destroy the thing at once and wash your hands very carefully, I beg. I do hope you haven't been making pastry or lemonade? As if the inevitable risks of life were not enough."

It was, of course, utterly unsuspected by the elder members of the household that Christopher had "formed a connexion," in so innocent a sense, with a young woman who sold programmes and took tips at the theatre. That connexion had come about in the simplest way. One Sunday evening, a year ago, Christopher was returning from Clapham Common on the top of a crowded tram, and next to him sat a girl with a fresh colour, whom he eyed with respectfully furtive admiration. This young person had paid her fare, but carelessly dropped the ticket, and it chanced that an inspector who came on board at a certain point raised the question whether she had really paid. The conductor weakly expressed a doubt, suggesting that this passenger had ascended with two or three other people since his last collection of fares. Here was a chance for young Mr. Parish, who could give conscientious evidence. Very hot in the face, he declared, affirmed, and asseverated that the young lady was telling the truth, and his energy at length prevailed. Of course, this led to colloquy between the two. Polly Sparkes, for she it was, behaved modestly but graciously. It was true she had exhibited short temper in her passage with the officials, but Christopher thought this a becoming spirit. In his eyes she was lovely, and could do nothing amiss. When she alighted he did so too, frowning upon the conductor by way of final rebuke. Their ways appeared to be the same, as if inadvertently they walked together along Kennington Road. And so pleasant was their conversation that Polly went some way past Mrs. Bubb's before saying that she must bid her new companion good-bye. Trembling at his audacity, Christopher humbly put the question whether he might not hope to see the young lady again; and Polly laughed and tittered, and said she didn't know, but p'r'aps. Thereupon Mr. Parish nervously made an offering of his name and address, and Polly, tittering again, exclaimed that they lived quite near each other, and playfully made known the position of her dwelling. So were the proprieties complied with, and so began the enslavement of Christopher.

He had since told all there was to tell about his family and circumstances, Polly in return throwing out a few vague hints as to her own private affairs. Christopher would have liked to invite her to his home, but lacked courage; his mother, his brother, and Mrs. Theodore-what would they say? The rigour of their principles overawed him. He often thought of abandoning his home, but neither for that step had he the necessary spirit of independence. Miss Sparkes no longer seemed to him of virtues compact; he sadly admitted in his wakeful hours that she had a temper; he often doubted whether she ever gave him a serious thought. But the fact remained that Polly did not send him about his business, and at times even seemed glad to see him, until that awful night when, by deplorable accident, he encountered her near Lincoln's Inn. That surely was the end of everything. Christopher, after tottering home he knew not how, wept upon his pillow. Of course he was jealous as well as profoundly hurt. Not without some secret reason had Polly met him so fiercely, brutally. He would try to think of her no more; she was clearly not destined to be his.

For a full fortnight he shunned the whole region of London in which Polly might be met. He was obliged, of course, to pass each night in Kennington, but he kept himself within doors there. Then he could bear his misery no longer. Three lachrymose letters had elicited no response; he wrote once more, and thus:


If you do not wish to be the cause of my death I hereby ask you to see me, if only for the very shortest space of time. If you refuse I know I shall do something rash. To-night and tomorrow night at half-past ten I will be standing at the south end of Westminster Bridge. The river will be near me if you are not; remember that.

Yours for now and eternity, C.J.P.

To this dread summons Polly at length yielded. She met Christopher, and they paced together on the embankment in front of St. Thomas's Hospital. It rained a little, and was so close that they both dripped with perspiration.

"P'r'aps I was a bit short with you," Polly admitted after listening to her admirer's remonstrances, uttered in a choking voice. "But I can't stand being spied after, and spied after I won't be."

"I have told you, Polly, at the very least sixty or seventy times, that I've never done such a thing, and wouldn't, and couldn't. It never came into my 'ead."

"Well, then, we won't say no more about it, and don't put me out again, that's all."

"But there's something else, Polly. You know very well, Polly, what a lot I think of you, don't you now?"

"Oh, I dessay," she replied with careless indulgence.

"Then why won't you let me see you oftener, and-and that kind of thing, you know?"

This was vague, but perfectly intelligible to the hearer. She gave an impatient little laugh.

"Oh, don't be silly! Go on!"

"But it isn't silly. You know what I mean. And you said-"

"There you go, bringing up what I said. Don't worry me. If you can't talk quiet and friendly we'd better not see each other at all. I shouldn't wonder if that was best for both of us."

Polly had never been less encouraging. She seemed preoccupied, and spoke in an idle, inattentive way. Her suggestion that they should "part friends," though she returned upon it several times, did not sound as if it were made in earnest, and this was Christopher's one solace.

"Will you meet me reg'lar once a week," he pleaded, "just for a talk?"

"No, it's too often."

"I know what that means," exclaimed the young man in the bitterness of his soul. "There's somebody else. Yes, that's it; there's somebody else."

"Well, and what if there was?" asked Polly, looking far away. "I don't see as it would be any business of yours."

"Oh, just listen to that!" cried Christopher. "That's how a girl talks to you when she knows you're ready to jump into the river! It's my belief that girls haven't much feeling."

The outrageous audacity of this avowal saved the speaker from Polly's indignation. She saw that he was terribly driven, and, in spite of herself, once more softened towards him; for Polly had never disliked Mr. Parish; from the very first his ingenuous devotedness excited in her something, however elementary, of reciprocal feeling. She thought him comely to look upon, and had often reflected upon how pleasant it was to rule a man by her slightest look or word. To be sure, Christopher's worldly position was nothing to boast of; but one' knew him for the steady, respectable young clerk, who is more likely than not to advance by modest increments of salary. Miss Sparkes would have perceived, had she been capable of intellectual perception, that Christopher answered fairly well to one of her ideals. Others there were, which tended to draw her from him, but she had never yet deliberately turned her back upon the young man.

So now, instead of answering bitterness with wrath, she spoke more gently than of wont.

"Don't take on in that way, you'll only have a headache to-morrow. I can't promise to meet you regular, but you can write, and I'll let you know when I'm ready for a talk. There now, won't that do?"

Christopher had to make it do, and presently accepted the conditions with tolerable grace. Before they parted Polly even assured him that if ever there was anyone else she would deal honestly with him and let him know. This being as much as to say that he might still hope, Christopher cast away his thoughts of self-destruction, and went home with an appetite for a late supper.

Two months elapsed before anything of moment occurred in the relations thus established. Then at one of their brief meetings Polly delighted the young man by telling him that he might wait for her outside the theatre on a certain evening of the same week. Hitherto such awaitings had been forbidden.

"Won't I, just!" cried Mr. Parish. "And you'll come and have some supper?"

"I can't promise; I may want to ask you to do something for me. Just you be ready, that's all."

He promised exultingly, and when the evening came took up his position a full hour before Polly could be expected to come forth.

Now this was the first night of a new piece at Polly's theatre, and she, long watching in vain for the reappearance of the lady whose address she was to discover for Mr. Gammon, thought it a very possible thing that a person who had been twice to see the old entertainment might attend the first performance of the new. Her mysterious uncle had never again communicated with her, and Polly began to doubt what Mr. Gammon's knowledge really was; but she had given her confidence beyond recall, and, though with many vicissitudes of feeling, she still wished to keep Gammon sole ally in this strange affair. Once or twice indeed she had felt disposed to tell Christopher that there was "someone else"; but nothing Gammon had said fully justified this, and Polly, though an emotional young woman, had a good deal of prudence. One thing was certain, she very much desired to bring her old enemy to the point of a declaration. How she would receive it when it came she could not wholly determine.

Her conjecture regarding the unknown lady was justified. Among the first who entered the stalls was a man whom Polly seemed to remember, and close behind him came first a younger lady, then the one for whom her eyes had searched night after night. In supplying them with programmes Polly observed and listened with feverish attention. The elder woman had slightly grizzled hair; her age could not be less than fifty, but she was in good health and spirits. With the intention of describing her to Gammon, Polly noticed that she had a somewhat masculine nose, high in the bridge.

A quarter of an hour before the end of the piece Polly, dressed for departure, came forth and discovered her faithful slave.

"Now listen to me," she said, checking his blandishments. "I told you there might be something to do for me, and there is."

Parish was all eagerness.

"There'll be three people coming out from the stalls, a gentleman and two ladies. I'll show you them-see? They'll drive off in a kerridge-see? And I want you to find out where they go."

Nothing could have been more startling to Christopher, in whose mind began a whirl of suspicions and fears.

"Why? What for?" he asked involuntarily.

Polly was short with him.

"All right, if you won't do it say so, and I'll ask somebody else. I've no time to lose."

He gasped and stammered. Yes, yes, of course he would do it. He had not dreamt of refusing. He would run after the carriage, however far.

"Don't be a silly. You'll have to take a 'ansom and tell the driver to follow-see?"

Yes, oh, yes, of course. He would do so. He trembled with excessive nervousness, and but for the sharp, contemptuous directions given him by Miss Sparkes must have hopelessly bungled the undertaking. Indeed, it was not easy to carry out in the confusion before a theatre when the audience is leaving, and bearing in mind the regulations concerning vehicles. Their scheme was based upon the certainty that the carriage must proceed at a very moderate pace for some two or three hundred yards; within that limit or a very little beyond it-at all events, before his breath was exhausted-Christopher would certainly be able to hail a cab.

"Tell the cabby they're friends of yours," said Polly, "and you're going to the same 'ouse. You look quite respectable enough with your 'igh 'at. That's what I like about you; you always look respectable."

"But-but he will set me down right beside the people."

"Well, what if he does, gooseberry? Can't you just pay him quietly? They'll think you're for next door."

"But-but it may be a big house by itself somewhere."

"Well, silly. They'll think it's a mistake, that's all. What's the matter in the dark? You do as I tell you. And when you've got to know the address-you can take your time about that, of course-come back along Shaftesbury Avenue and give three knocks at the door, and I'll come down."

It flashed through Christopher's mind that he would be terribly late in getting home, but there was no help for it. If he refused this undertaking, or failed to carry it out successfully, Polly would cast him off. The gloom of a desperate mood fell upon him. He had the feeling of a detective or of a criminal, he knew not which; the mystery of the affair was a hideous oppression.

Even the initial step, that of watching the trio of strangers into their brougham, was not without difficulty. The pavement began to be crowded. Clutching her slave by the arm, Polly managed to hold a position whence she could see the people who descended the front steps of the theatre, and at length her energy was rewarded. The ladies she could not have recognized, for they were muffled against the night air, but their male companion she "spotted"-that was the word in her mind-with certainty.

"There! See those three? That's them," she whispered excitedly. "Off you go!"

And off he went, as if life depended upon it; his eyes on the brougham, his heart throbbing violently, moisture dropping from his forehead and making his collar limp. The carriage disengaged itself, the pace quickened, he began to run, and collided with pedestrians who cursed him. Now-now or never-a cab!

By good luck he plunged into a hansom wanting a fare.

"The carriage-friends of mine-that carriage!"

"Ketch 'em up?" asked the driver briskly.

"No-same 'ouse-follow!"

As he flung himself into the vehicle he seriously feared he was on the point of breaking a blood vessel, never had he been at such extremity of breath. But his eyes clung to the brougham in dread lest he should lose sight of it, or confuse it with another. The driver whipped his horse. Thank goodness, the carriage remained well in sight. But if there should come a block! A perilous point was Piccadilly Circus. Never, it seemed to him, had the streets of London roared with such a tumult of traffic. Right! The Circus was passed; now Piccadilly with its blessed quietness. What a speed they kept! Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge, and-what road was that? Christopher's geography failed him; he pretended to no familiarity with the West End. On swept his hansom in what he felt to be a most impudent pursuit; nay, for all he knew, it might subject him to the suspicion of the police. The cabby need not follow so close; why, the horse's nose all but touched the brougham now and then. How much farther? How was he to get back? He could not possibly reach home till one in the morning.

The brougham made a sharp curve, the hansom followed. Then came a sudden stop.

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